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General Licences and the Law

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (the primary legislation which protects animals, plants and habitats in the UK) all wild birds are protected.

However there are a number of specific exemptions that allow some species of birds to be killed under what are known as Individual (or Specific) Licences (which need to be applied for through a statutory nature conservation agency) and General Licences (which do not).

  • General Licences are wide-ranging, easy to get hold of, and – in reality – exist in name only. They set out the purposes and circumstances under which killing otherwise protected birds and/or removing their nests is legal and are intended to be used for activities that carry a low risk to the conservation or welfare of a protected species. 
  • Individual Licences relate to permission to take an action to “control wild birds” that would otherwise break the law and which is not covered by a General Licence. An applicant must apply to a statutory nature conservation agency (Natural England, Nature Scot, Natural Resources Wales, for a licence and the agency will then decide whether the situation merits a licence or not. 

In England General Licences are issued by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) who say on their website that, “General licences are permissive licences, meaning that users do not need to apply for them, but they must comply with their terms and conditions, when undertaking licensed acts. They allow users to kill or take certain species of wild birds for defined purposes such as preventing serious damage to certain commodities such as livestock and crops, for the purposes of conserving wild birds, plants and animals, or for public health and safety reasons.”

In Scotland they are issued by NatureScot who say that “General licences permit ‘authorised persons’ to perform certain actions affecting birds, which would otherwise be illegal, without individual licences“.
 
In Wales they are issued by Natural Resources Wales who say that “The purposes for which this licence is granted are to prevent serious damage or spread of disease to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables or fruit”.
 
In Northern Ireland they are issued by Daera (the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) who say that, “General licences permit authorised persons to carry out actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

General Licences do not need to be specifically applied for and they are not issued to individuals, so in theory anyone can apply for one and anyone ‘authorised’ (a landowner or someone working with the landowners’ permission) can claim they are using a General Licence.

The government simply says that:

If you plan to act under the authority of a general licence, you must:

  • be eligible to do so (see conditions of each licence)
  • comply with the terms of the relevant licence and therefore the law

The most relevant three licences in operation are:

 

The government also says that if “your circumstances are not covered by these general licences you must apply for”:

Many people outside of the shooting and agriculture industries think so, yes.

The terms of – and the species on – the General Licences were extensively revised by Defra in 2021, though, after a court challenge by Wild Justice who successfully argued that licences across the UK were flawed and were often simply a cover for shooting interests, not conservation interests, to carry out the casual killing of birds.

In some circumstances, they argued, General Licences were unlawful because they did not specify the circumstances under which their use would be lawful and that there were some species included with unfavourable conservation status (like Lesser Black-backed Gull) that should never have been on the General Licences in the first place.

In their words, the licences added up “to casual licensing of casual killing of birds“.

Individual Licences relate to permission to take an action to “control wild birds” that would otherwise break the law and which is not covered by a General Licence. An applicant must apply to a statutory nature conservation agency (Natural England, Nature Scot, Natural resources Wales, and  for a licence and the agency will then decide whether that situation merits a licence or not. If they agree they will then issue a licence to a named individual for that action to take place. An example would be A08 which allows certain species to be ‘controlled’ under strict conditions to “prevent disease or serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters“.

A named licence holder can use this licence to control wild birds, their nests and eggs by:

  • disturbing them
  • killing them
  • taking them
  • using a prohibited method of control on them
 

Should a licence be refused but the applicant carries out the action anyway, they would be breaking the law.

A class licence is required for activities that need specific skill or experience to avoid risk to the conservation or welfare of a protected species.

Class licences are needed, for example, for:

If you plan to act under the authority of a class licence you:

  • must be registered to use most class licences
  • need to apply to be registered for each licence you use
  • remain eligible to use the licence(s) for as long as you remain registered
  • meet the recording and reporting requirement for each licence
  • might need to pay to register or renew a class licence – each licence will tell you if you’ll need to pay

Natural England will only issue a licence if an individual can show (ie ‘demonstrate’) that:

  • actual damage or a problem is occurring, or likely to occur – and the target species is causing it
  • non-lethal solutions have been tried or an individual can show that those solutions would not be effective or practical
  • there are no suitable alternative methods of control
  • actions taken under the licence will contribute to preventing damage or resolving the problem
  • actions taken under the licence will not negatively affect the conservation status of the wild bird

 

If an application does not meet these criteria Natural England will reject the application (though it is worth noting that Natural England are understaffed and underesourced and are often hard pushed to verify situations in the field).

Yes, and along much the same lines as in England and Wales.

NatureScot says that:

“General licences cover relatively common situations where there’s unlikely to be any significant conservation impact. They avoid the need for people to apply for individual licences for these specific circumstances.

You don’t need to apply to use a general licence. But you must be sure that the licence is appropriate and that you meet the licence conditions in full. Abuse of, or failure to comply with, the conditions could constitute an offence.

General licences cover certain types of activity relating to birds, for example:

  • preserving public health
  • protecting air safety
  • preventing the spread of disease”

 

In February 2024 NatureScot updated its guidance for gull licensing in response to significant and serious declines in all five species that breed in Scotland.

The move will reduce the number of licences that are issued to control gulls in towns and cities each breeding season, following new evidence on the extent to which populations are struggling (all five breeding species of gull continue to decline, with numbers in Scotland down by between 44% and 75% depending on species).

The declines are attributed to factors such as changes in food availability and land use, with some species also suffering losses because of recent devastating outbreaks of avian flu.

Currently, Herring Gull is a Red listed species of conservation concern in the UK, while Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Gull and Black-headed Gull are all amber listed. 

In Scotland a specific licence must be applied for to destroy the nests or eggs of gulls, relocate chicks or, as a last resort, carry out lethal control.

Since removing gulls from the General Licence in 2019, NatureScot has been assessing demand for licenses while working with local authorities, pest controllers and the public to emphasise the requirement for preventative, non-lethal measures.

For the 2024 breeding season, in light of the latest population declines and the ongoing impact of avian flu, the guidance for applicants has been clarified further to ensure that applicants are aware that licences can only be issued for reasons of clear public health and safety issues, and where other alternatives are not effective. Applicants may be required to submit additional evidence before a licence will be issued.

In very rare cases, yes.

NatureScot says that they “can prohibit the use of General Licences 01, 02 and 03 by certain persons and/or on certain areas of land, where we have reason to believe that wild birds have been taken or killed by such persons and/or on such land other than in accordance with the general licence.”

In practical terms this means removing general licences to kill corvids from shooting estates like the notorious Moy Estate near Inverness or Millden Estate, in the Angus Glens, where wildlife crime (especially raptor persecution) has taken place. The action is largely symbolic: while some reputational damage will occur, the estate is not banned from continuing to sell birds for the gun and gamekeepers on the estate may still operate using individual licences.

This is perhaps the wrong way of looking at how a general licence is used. General Licences do not have to be applied for, downloaded, or even have to be in an individual’s possession. They work more like general exemptions to legislation and in practical terms provide a legal basis for people to carry out a range of activities relating to wildlife that would otherwise be illegal (much like exemptions and loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004).

Determining whether the terms of a licence are being met can really only be made by looking at relevant wildlife protection laws to see if they are being broken.

Wildlife crime is defined as any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild flora and fauna, including species traded in the UK.

Note that wildlife crime does NOT include:

  • Incidents involving domestic or companion animals such as dogs (other than dogs being used to hunt mammals), cats, rabbits, domesticated birds, etc.
  • Wild animals that have been involved (killed or injured etc) in road traffic accidents.

Road accidents with wild animals do not need to be reported to the police, but note that domestic animals (as well as goats, horses, cattle, asses, mules, sheep and pigs) come within the remit of the Road Traffic Act.
If you have a road accident involving these animals you are required by law to report it to the police. If the wild animal is so badly injured in a road accident that there is no chance of recovery or the animal can not be returned to the wild then he or she may be euthanised, providing there is no appropriate long-term captive or semi-captive accommodation or when treatment would involve undue suffering or distress.

If we come across a wildlife crime scene or a dead bird/object that may be related to a wildlife crime every piece of information is – or might be – important, but it needs to be recorded properly and accurately for the authorities to have a chance of prosecuting an offender.

  • Before we do anything else it is very important that we do NOT approach anyone we suspect of committing a crime – they may be violent and/or aggressive. This is especially true of badger baiters and hare coursers who are typically extremely violent. This must be a first priority!
 
What do we need to record?
  • What we can see happening – what sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved, could we or the public be in danger?
  • The exact location. Most smartphones have map apps or download the free What3Words app. If in open countryside look for obvious landmarks or fence lines, a tall or isolated tree, a wind turbine, any streams or brooks etc. Think about what would you need to re find a remote location.
  • It is important to record if at all possible whether we are on or near public land as this will determine the type of police response.
  • Never put ourselves in danger, but can we see who is involved and what they look like (e.g. number of people, their gender(s), age(s), the clothing worn, tools being carried)? Can we hear them – if so what are they saying, are they using any names etc?
  • If any dogs are involved how many are there, what colour are they, do we know what breed they are (even information like ‘terriers’ or ‘lurcher-types’ can be very useful).
  • The make, colour and registration number of any vehicle (we can take photos of a car if we think it is being used or might be used to commit a crime). Does it have any obvious dents, branding or markings, spotlights, bullbars etc.

 

DO and DO NOT

  • Do NOT disturb the scene by walking around unnecessarily – small pieces of evidence (cigarette ends, footprints, the marks left by a spade etc) may be lost or trampled into the mud or grass.
  • If photographing an object do try to use eg a coin or a notebook/field guide for scale – providing it won’t disturb the crime scene.
  • If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. DO NOT mark a site with eg a white plastic bag though. Being able to see a marker from a distance might sound like a good idea, but it will also alert an offender that someone has been at the site: they may go back and remove the evidence
  • Do NOT move any items at the scene – the exception being if they are likely to disappear before the police arrive when we can collect them as evidence.
  • Do NOT touch any dead birds or animals with bare hands. They may be poisoned baits or victims of poisoning. Many poisons (eg Carbofuran) are extremely dangerous in even very small amounts and can be absorbed through the skin.
  • Do NOT do anything illegal ourselves – that might mean our evidence is not admissible.
 If we see a wildlife crime taking place (or someone is at risk of getting injured or is being threatened) call 999 immediately.
They will want to know what we can see happening:
  • What sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved
  • Could we or the public be in danger
  • Do we have photos or video footage which may be used as evidence
  • Tell whoever you REPORT the crime to exactly what you have RECORDED as described in the section above.
 
To report a historic crime – that is, a crime that is no longer taking place – use 101 or a local organisation instead.
  • If calling the police ask to speak to a Wildlife Crime Officer and make sure to get an Incident Report number.
  • Please always follow any advice given and – if they are not available – insist that a Wildlife Crime Officer is made aware of your report.
  •  Our options are wider if the event is over, and it may be preferable to talk first to a charity or NGO to get advice. Crimestoppers (an independent charity) can be contacted in complete confidence on 0800 555 111
  • When thinking about reporting a crime it’s worth noting that only the police have statutory powers to make an arrest. RSPCA and RSPB investigation officers work with the police for successful prosecutions.
 
Reporting a wildlife crime (or even a suspected wildlife crime) is important for two reasons.
  • If the event is still happening it may enable the authorities to catch the criminals ‘in the act’ (which means a higher chance of prosecution),
  • and if the event is over a report can still help to build up a more accurate picture of what might be happening in a specific location or across the country as a whole.
Our help is always welcomed
  • Whoever we decide to contact we have been assured that our help is welcomed and that if we’re in any doubt that what we’re seeing is a  crime we should report it anyway. Remember, if what we see ‘feels’ wrong, it probably is!
  • Even if we’re not sure about what we’re seeing, we can take a photograph and email it to the police or an investigations officer – they are trained to quickly recognise for example when a snare is illegally placed, whether a trap is being used illegally, or whether a crime is being committed or not.
  • We may help stop or solve future crimes by helping build up a pattern of behaviour in an area.

Many birds are shot for ‘sport’ or deliberately persecuted. For more information go to our Birds species accounts. Find out too what we’re doing to End the Shooting Industry.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault, or what we should do if we’re arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in over thirty simple, mobile-friendly pages just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault or harassment, or what we should do if we’re stopped and searched or even arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in forty-one simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 500 FAQs just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource with two aims: to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution; and to provide a ‘quick guide’ to anyone interacting with hunts, hunt supporters, or the police.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to, and the more we know our rights the better we can protect ourselves.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit currently has seven priority offences for wildlife crime.

Badger persecution

It is illegal to interfere with or block a badger’s home or ‘sett’. Badger baiting is a centuries-old now illegal blood sport, where small dogs such as terriers or lurchers seek badgers out of their setts before fighting and killing them.

Bat persecution

Bats and their homes are legally protected, so disturbing or removing them is an offence. If bats roost in your roof, you need to obtain a special ‘bat mitigation licence’ from Natural England to be allowed to disturb them. They are hugely important to our ecosystem.

Trade of endangered species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sets out which endangered animals and plants have protected status. It is illegal to remove any of them from their natural habitat, possess, or sell them. Currently, the top priorities are European eels, birds of prey, ivory, medicinal and health products, reptiles, rhino horns, and timber.

Freshwater pearl mussel offences

These Endangered mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) are only found in rivers in Scotland and small parts of England. They can live for more than 130 years but are extremely sensitive to water pollution and have been illegally farmed for years. It is illegal to damage or destroy their habitat or to take, injure or kill them.

Poaching

Fox, deer, and hare hunting are all illegal under the Hunting Act 2004. Poaching offences also cover illegal fishing – when anglers do not obtain a licence or remove protected fish from lakes and rivers without returning them.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey are often targeted on shooting estates. Their eggs are also traded illegally. It is an offence to target, poison, or kill them, with a particular focus on Golden Sagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles. Disturbing or taking their eggs or chicks is also illegal.

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime

Social media is often used to promote wildlife crime and recruit people to take part in it. Endangered plants and animals are also traded illegally online.

  • Punishment must fit the crime. Conditional discharges and paltry fines are not a disincentive for criminals.

A common complaint is that even if wildlife criminals are brought to court the fines or sentences they get are pathetic and not a disincentive. In most cases judges are giving out the penalties they are allowed to under the law. Changes can be made though. In 2022 the maximum sentence for ‘causing uneccesary suffering’ went from six months to five years. That was the result of targeted public pressure and campaigning. We need to identify where changes should be made and push hard for them.

 

  • Wildlife crime must be notifiable and statistics accurately compiled so that resources can be properly targeted.

Police forces are required by law to inform the Home Office of any notifiable offences, which then uses the reports to compile the crime statistics known as ‘recorded crime’. Currently, wildlife crimes are not ‘notifiable’ though (and wildlife crime involving firearms are also not recorded as firearms offences by the Police).  Without them being notifiable, no one knows how many wildlife crimes are being committed across the UK and where the hotspots are (though ‘grouse moors’ is one obvious response). As we have stated many times on this website, law and legislative enforcement is hugely underfunded and under-resourced. Some of this has undoubtedly been through political choice, but if we at least know which crimes are being committed and where, the resources that are available can be placed where they are needed most.

 

  • There must be changes to make it far easier for all of us to play our part in ‘Recognising, Reporting, Recording’ wildlife cime.

As even a quick glance at the Protectors pages makes clear, laws protecting wildlife are hard to understand. Major pieces of legislation like the Hunting Act 2004  and other laws are riddled with exemptions which strongly favour the hunting, shooting, and agricultural industries. Some date from a century or more ago and don’t reflect the modern world. These need to be updated. While there has undoubtedly been efforts made by successive governmants to use ‘plain english’ to explain legislation, any government wanting to tackle wildlife crime needs to make understanding what is and what isn’t a crime far more easily understood and put resources into a reporting system that the public feel confident using. Crucially, the public need to be sure that if they do report a crime it will be acted upon.

 

  • We have to protect the environment and wildlife properly.

Laws protecting wildlife and the environment need to be revised to reflect the 21st century and the biodiversity and climate crises we are in. Animals (and plants) are not an add-on or a ‘nice to have’ – they have shaped the systems that life depends on, and our laws need to reflect how critically important they are.

 

If you’d like to support just one legislative change, Protect the Wild has launched ‘The Hunting of Mammals Bill: A Proper Ban on Hunting‘ – please sign our petition calling for a proper ban on hunting with dogs.

We would like Protectors of the Wild to be the ‘go to’ free resource, packed with the kind of information that really does help all of us become ‘eyes in the field. But we can’t possibly think of every question that might need answering or every situation someone might find themselves in! And while the information in these pages is largely taken from Government online advice and was compiled in 2023 (and constantlyy updated), perhaps we’ve missed something out.

If you could provide us with legal advice get in touch. Or if you find a mistake or a gap please let us know. That way we can continually improve Protectors of the Wild – for the benefit of animals and all of us. Thanks.

‘Protectors of the Wild’ is a project of Protect the Wild. We have a dedicated email address for anyone wishing to get in touch with a specific Protectors query or with additional information etc. Please use the form on our Contact Protectors page or email protectors@protectthewild.org.uk. Thank you.

Much of the information we give in these pages is very technical or to do with legislation which can be revised without much notice. While we have worked very hard on these pages and we take keeping our information accurate and up-to-date very seriously, Protect the Wild are not legal professionals. Just to make sure no-one thinks we’re offering professional legal advice, we feel obliged to include the following disclaimer on every page.

  • Please think of the ‘Protectors of the Wild’ pages as a ‘first stop’ before seeking legal advice. We provide detailed information but not professional advice. The information provided by Protect the Wild should NOT be considered or relied on as legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Any of the material on our website may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no legal obligation to update such material. While we update and revise as often as we can, Protect the Wild assumes no responsibility for the accuracy and correctness of any information, or for any consequences of relying on it. Please do not act or refrain from acting upon this information without seeking professional legal advice.